Voters in Nevada and South Carolina make their choices on Saturday in a chaotic U.S. presidential race, with polls showing tight struggles in both states as nominating battles move to the South and West.
In South Carolina, Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee are battling for the lead in a race focused on economic worries, while Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson hope to shove their way to the top in a state where Republicans have a history as kingmakers.
Since 1980, the Republican winner in the South Carolina primary has gone on to capture the nomination. Voting ends at 7 p.m. EST, with results expected soon afterward.
“I’m like a lot of people in America tonight. I’m a guy over 50 looking for a job. I hope I get the hire,” Huckabee told supporters at a Friday night rally at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
In Nevada, Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are waging another tight duel complicated by uncertainties about turnout. In 2004, only 9,000 Democrats participated in Nevada’s caucuses, and no one knows how many will show up this time.
“If you will go to your precinct caucus tomorrow for one or two hours, I promise you that I will stand up for you every single day of this campaign and every single day in the White House,” Clinton, a New York senator, told a packed gym of supporters in Las Vegas on Friday night.
Republicans also vote in Nevada, but most Republican candidates have focused their attention on the South Carolina showdown. Republican results in Nevada are expected after 3 p.m. EST, with Democratic results expected a few hours later.
The two states are the next battlegrounds in a seesawing race to choose candidates for November’s election to succeed President George W. Bush. No one in either party has claimed the role of favorite, with the first five major contests producing five different winners.
A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll on Saturday showed McCain, an Arizona senator, and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, in a statistical dead heat in South Carolina at 27 percent to 26 percent heading into the voting.
In Nevada, where Democrats hoped an early contest would highlight the party’s growing strength in the West, Clinton led Obama 45 percent to 39 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was a distant third at 6 percent.
For the winners on Saturday, the prize is a fresh jolt of energy in a White House race where momentum has been short-lived.
The Republican contenders head next to Florida for its January 29 primary, while Democrats focus on South Carolina’s January 26 primary. Both parties then turn their attention to the critical February 5 “Super Tuesday” round of 22 state contests.
Huckabee, a Baptist minister who won in Iowa, has been reminding South Carolina crowds of his Southern roots and hopes to make inroads with the state’s large bloc of evangelicals, the group that fueled his rise in Iowa.
A storm system was expected to bring heavy rain and even snow to usually warm South Carolina, which could affect turnout.
“I know the weather’s bad here in South Carolina today. That’s not a good sign, but on the other hand I think our voters are committed,” Huckabee said on CNN.
McCain, who won in New Hampshire, saw his 2000 presidential bid crippled by a bitter loss to Bush in South Carolina and spent much of the past few years trying to mend fences with his old foes in the state.
The Arizona senator ended his South Carolina campaign on Friday with an evening rally on the USS Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier docked near Charleston.
“There is no place I would rather wind up than right here on the USS Yorktown,” McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, told supporters. “This ship epitomizes the service and sacrifice of many Americans in many wars.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who won in Michigan on Tuesday, was battling former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson for third place in South Carolina polls.
Thompson, who got into the race late in hopes of unifying the party’s split conservative base, needs a strong finish in the state to have a shot at staying viable.
In Nevada, Obama and Clinton have clashed over a plan to allow voting in casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, approved by a federal judge on Thursday, and over Clinton’s comments on race, seen by some as a slight on civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Minorities, led by a booming Hispanic population, could make up about 40 percent of the state’s voters. Clinton asked Obama on Friday to denounce Spanish-language radio ads accusing her of disrespecting Hispanics.
The ads, run by a union backing Obama, were “shameless and offensive,” she said. The Obama camp said it had no control over the ads and discouraged outside ad campaigns.
Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, will head to Atlanta after the Nevada vote to appear at King’s home church on Sunday.